Pamela Geller is a Terrible Poster Child for Free Speech—and Against Islamist Extremism
Bigotry kneecaps the case against radical Islamism
Here's what I think about activist Pamela Geller's recent "Draw the Prophet" contest in Garland, Texas, where two wannabe jihadists were killed trying to carry out a terror attack: Geller had every right to organize that contest, and she should not be chided for supposedly abusing that right. When extremists use deadly violence against speech that offends them, tut-tutting "just because you can do it doesn't mean it's a good idea" is unseemly and misguided.
I also believe that, as I argued in The Daily Beast, Geller and her associate Robert Spencer are terrible poster children not only for free speech, but for combating Islamist extremism—because they routinely blur the lines not only between "anti-jihadism" and a war on Islam, but between criticism of Islam and Muslim-bashing. I don't believe Mohammed cartoons are an attack on Muslims, and I actually thought the contest winner made an excellent point. However, as I documented, Geller and Spencer have spent years stoking anti-Muslim hysteria. I'm not fond of the term "Islamophobia," which lumps together criticism of a religion and hatred toward its adherents; but "bigotry," in this case, is not too strong a term.
In their "rebuttal" on Breitbart.com, Geller and Spencer call my article "vicious and dishonest." Without turning this into a point-by-point exchange, some of their charges must be addressed.
I have no interest in polemics over whether, as Geller and Spencer claim, reformation in Islam is a quixotic project ruled out by Islamic doctrine and scripture. People who have deeply studied Islam and political Islamism, and can hardly be accused of naïveté—such as historian Bernard Lewis or Middle East analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht—disagree. Even as strong a critic of Islam as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has come to believe reform is possible. Geller and Spencer cite liberal Muslim Thomas Haidon, who back in 2005 agreed with Spencer that a reformist movement cannot succeed unless it offers "coherent and irrefutable evidence" that its version of Islam is "the 'correct Islam.'" They do not mention that in the next sentence, Haidon lists several Islamic scholars who he believes have done just that. Nor do they acknowledge his warning against "destructive commentary" that undermine reform "by attacking Muslim reformers as 'stupid,' naïve and useless"—the kind of commentary that is their stock in trade.
That aside, the Geller/Spencer piece offers a striking example of why Spencer, the duo's putative scholar, is simply not trustworthy as an expert.
Defending Spencer's claim that the relative tolerance toward Jews in medieval Islam (compared to Christian Europe) is a politically correct myth, Geller and Spencer quote the 12th Century Jewish philosopher Maimonides—who "lived for a time in Muslim Spain and then fled that supposedly tolerant and pluralistic land"—on the mistreatment of Jews by "the nation of Ishmael." The passage they cite, which refers to specific instances of persecution, is the subject of considerable debate among scholars as far as its context and interpretation. But what's not in dispute is that when Maimonides left Spain after a fanatical Muslim sect came to power, he headed to other Muslim countries: Morocco, present-day Israel, and finally Egypt, where he eventually became the Sultan's personal physician. His actual view of Christianity and Islam, and of the Jews' relationship to both, was complex and on the whole probably more favorable to Islam. These are, to say the least, misleading omissions.
Geller and Spencer accuse me of omissions of my own when it comes to Spencer's sympathetic statements about moderate Muslims. Yes, in more than a decade of blogposts on Spencer's site, JihadWatch, one can find such occasional lip service—nearly always in the context of stressing the isolation of moderate Muslims and the hopelessness of their cause. (For the record, the besieged "Moroccan cleric" Geller and Spencer credit Spencer for praising, Ahmed Assid, is actually a secularist intellectual and Berber nationalist.) But did I misrepresent Geller and Spencer's treatment of Muslim reformers, past and present? Two examples will suffice.
- I wrote that Spencer "ignores the work of such 20th Century thinkers as Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, who made the case for the abrogation of the Quran's later, harsher texts by the earlier, more peaceful ones." Spencer and Geller counter by citing a 2014 JihadWatch post in which Spencer notes that the Sudanese government executed Taha for heresy, and a 2006 guest post "on the death of Mohammed Taha." I was prepared to concede error until I checked the links. Spencer's post from last year is a long critique of a statement by Muslim scholars denouncing ISIS as un-Islamic; the reference to Taha is a throwaway line challenging one of their assertions (that Islam forbids declaring people non-Muslim unless they have declared disbelief). This has little bearing on my point: that Spencer's claims about the lack of theological basis for Islamic reform ignore scholars who have formulated such a basis.As for the 2006 guest post, it's about the wrong Taha: Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, a Sudanese journalist (and moderate Islamist) abducted and killed by terrorists. The sloppiness would be laughable if it weren't for the tragic subject matter.
- Geller and Spencer dispute my assertion that they conducted a smear campaign against American Muslim reformer Zuhdi Jasser in 2011; they think it was a "spirited and substantive disagreement." Well, Jasser thought it was a "vicious attack" and "libelous character assassination." The Geller/Spencer piece also congratulates Spencer for defending Jasser against attacks by the Council on American-Islamic Relations last year. But that "defense" was mainly a broadside against CAIR and a rebuttal to its accusations against Spencer himself; Jasser got about 90 words in a 750-word piece.
Meanwhile, here's what Spencer has said about moderate Muslims:
"I have maintained from the beginning of this site and before that that there is no reliable way to distinguish a 'moderate' Muslim who rejects the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism from a 'radical' Muslim who holds such ideas, even if he isn't acting upon them at the moment." (From a 2007 post on an Israeli Arab politician caught aiding Hezbollah; a correction notes that the culprit was a Christian, but Spencer clearly felt that his point still stood.)
"The first thing we would have to do is…understand that really, anybody who professes the Islamic faith, if he delves into the teachings of his own religion, is somebody who could end up being very dangerous to us." (From a 2010 debate at Thomas More College, where Spencer argued that "the only good Muslim is a bad Muslim"—one who doesn't follow and probably doesn't even know the tenets of his or her faith.)
And then there's this advice from Spencer's elusive ex-associate Hugh Fitzgerald:
"Understand how very useless is the concept of the 'moderate' Muslim—because it is impossible to know when someone's 'moderation' is real or feigned. Experience shows that Muslim dissimulation—whether called taqiyya, kitman, or simply dissimulation—comes naturally. Also, by his mere presence a 'moderate' Muslim can swell the ranks, and hence the perceived power, of Muslims… And also because even the 'moderate' can be transformed, sometimes very quickly, into the 'immoderate' Muslim, or can have children who themselves will turn out, in a seeking-your-roots or disaffected-from-the-West attitude, to become 'immoderate.'"
(So much for Geller and Spencer's charge that I can't "produce an actual damning quote" to support my claim that Fitzgerald—whom they describe as a "former writer" for JihadWatch, but who was vice president of its board of directors—describes even peaceful Muslims as a threat to the West.)
Geller and Spencer say that I wrongly accused them of opposing Muslims' First Amendment freedom to worship; the article I cited, they claim, merely shows Geller backing legitimate zoning concerns about the building of a mosque. In other words, we are to believe that when Geller posts a screed titled "Mosqueing the Neighborhood," she is concerned only about traffic congestion and noise, just as she would be if it were a megachurch. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that the wave of opposition to mosques and Muslim centers following Geller's campaign against the "Ground Zero mosque" was steeped in overt religious animus. And there is Spencer's 2010 blogpost candidly stating that "it is entirely reasonable for free people to oppose the construction of new mosques in non-Muslim countries."
As it happens, the same blogpost offers additional evidence for another charge Geller and Spencer decry as unfair: that they routinely distort and mislead to whip up hysteria about "creeping sharia." One of Spencer's examples of the mosque menace is that here in the U.S., mosques have demanded that "non-Muslims conform to Islamic dietary restrictions." The link leads to another JihadWatch post about "stealth jihad in Knoxville," where a mosque was allegedly seeking to "impose Islamic restrictions on alcohol upon non-Muslims."
The mosque, it turns out, was objecting to the planned opening of a restaurant with beer, music and dancing less than 200 feet away. But is there anything uniquely Islamic about such objections? Knoxville has a city ordinance that prohibits selling alcohol within 300 feet of a house of worship (with a loophole for establishments that have a state liquor license). In Texas, that notorious sharia stronghold, such a prohibition is mandated by state law; twenty-four other states and numerous municipalities restrict the sale of alcohol near places of worship. In 2011, a Baptist church in Queens, New York tried to block a beer and wine license for a hookah lounge next door, arguing that alcoholic beverages were unacceptable "in God's sight." Somehow, Geller missed this shocking religious tyranny right in her backyard. But she reported the Knoxville dispute under the not-at-all-hysterical tags "AMERABIA: LOSING AMERICA" and "CREEPING SHARIA: AMERICAN DHIMMITUDE."
Geller and Spencer also devote much space to defending their debunked horror tales of jihad in our midst.
- They state that Sulejman Talovic, the Bosnian-born 18-year-old killed after a shooting spree at a Salt Lake City shopping mall in 2007, wore a necklace with a miniature Koran and "was described as a religious Muslim, attending mosque on Fridays and praying outside of mosque." In fact, the 745-page FBI report on the shooting said that Talovic had stopped attending mosque once he started working in 2004 and that coworkers never saw him praying. It also concluded that he was not motivated by jihad. (Geller and Spencer clearly think the Koran necklace suggests otherwise; but, interestingly, such necklaces are apparently viewed as profane and even idolatrous by devout Muslims.)
- They insist there was evidence of a jihadist connection in the October 2005 suicide-by-homemade bomb of University of Oklahoma engineering student Joel Hinrichs, citing reports (from WorldNetDaily) that "'Islamic jihad' material" was found in Hinrichs's apartment and that he had belonged to a mosque previously attended by September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. But Geller and Spencer fail to mention that none of those rumors were substantiated. The FBI, after an exhaustive investigation, found no evidence that Hinrichs had extremist views or had planned to enter the stadium; the terse note he left on his computer indicated no motive beyond suicide.
- They insist that we can't be sure Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho wasn't a jihadist Muslim, since the "Ismail Ax" inked on his arm remains unexplained. Never mind that the only religious references in the video rant Cho sent to the media were Christian: he compared his imminent death to that of Jesus and spoke of being "impaled upon a cross" by his perceived tormentors.
- Bizarrely, they argue that Geller showed "commitment to accuracy" by deleting a post titled "Vehicular Jihad in Arizona"—based on a news report about a car crashing into a storefront and on the dead driver's Muslim name—when it turned out the "jihadist" had suffered a heart attack while driving. Journalism 101: if you have published a false report, and a defamatory one at that, the decent thing is not to scrub it but to post a retraction and an apology.
Geller and Spencer also try to rescue the "sharia judge" canard circulated in 2012 about Pennsylvania magistrate Mark Martin. As I wrote at the time, Martin had chided a complainant—atheist activist Ernest Perce, who was accusing a Muslim immigrant of harassment—for insulting Muslim sensibilities with a Halloween costume that lampooned Mohammed. For this, Judge Martin was rightly criticized. But the story also generated a firestorm based on reports that he told Perce, "I'm a Muslim, I find it offensive." The judge was quickly confirmed to be Lutheran, and even National Review's Andrew McCarthy, who had initially promoted the story, agreed that his remark had been misheard in the audio of the court session. Geller continued to insist that Martin said he was a Muslim and probably was one; she and Spencer still do.
(In a hilariously karmic postscript, Geller's Muslim-bashing atheist hero, Perce, is now a rabidly anti-Semitic preacher leading a fringe Christian ministry—just the kind of hero Geller deserves.)
On the subject of Geller's tendency to excuse or deny Serb war crimes against Bosnian Muslims, Geller and Spencer respond to the charge of "genocide denial" by claiming that the Bosnian Muslim genocide is a subject of legitimate debate. As proof, they cite a 2005 Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal article which questions the "genocide" classification of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 7,000-8,000 Bosnian males. But the passage they quote clearly shows that the debate is on whether the massacre qualifies as genocide or the somewhat lesser offense of "crime against humanity"—not on whether it happened, or whether the perpetrators were criminals or anti-jihad resisters. "War crime denier" may sound better than "genocide denier," but not by much.
Finally, Geller and Spencer defend a post by Spencer vilifying Kurdish fighter Arin Mirkan as a jihadist because she carried out a suicide bombing against ISIS troops in a besieged town. Their position seems to be that any suicide attack, even in combat, is morally unjustifiable. That's debatable (there were kamikaze-like suicide missions by Allied pilots during World War II). But, morality aside, Spencer's post was ludicrously ignorant: it labels Mirkan, a soldier in the military wing of the left-wing, secular Democratic Union Party, a "Kurdish Muslima."
Geller and Spencer end their screed with an absurd accusation: that I wrote my article because I see them, not Islamist terrorists, as the real enemy. Their social-media acolytes have suggested other motives: that I am afraid of Muslims and am trying to placate them, or that I am a "dhimmi" eager to please my Muslim overlords. (This uncannily echoes hostile responses to my critiques of gender-war feminism: I think false accusations are a bigger problem than rape; I'm trying to placate the patriarchy because I'm afraid of male violence; I'm a man-pleaser.)
In fact, I wrote my article mainly for two reasons:
- I believe radical Islamism in all its forms—the ISIS version or the official Saudi version—is the greatest challenge and danger of the twenty-first century, and the Geller/Spencer way of dealing with it is highly counterproductive. Incidentally, I agree that many critics of "Islamophobia" tend to downplay the very real problems of jihadist terror, of the entrenched power of oppressive, fanatical Islamist ideology in much of the Muslim world, and of radicalization in Muslim communities. But panic-mongering "anti-jihadists" give those critics ample ammunition—for instance, by jumping on fake news stories of sharia on the march.
- I abhor the demonization of any group, especially in the name of a goal I support—be it men demonized under the guise of feminism, or Muslims of anti-Islamism.
Along with missives from Geller/Spencer fans urging me to buy a Muslim prayer rug or predicting my sexual enslavement by ISIS, two emails thanking me for the article are particularly relevant. One was from a man who asked not to use his name, a self-described secular Jew who said that he was a fan of Geller's until he started to find her behavior "very troubling"—though he still credits her for raising his awareness of radical Islam. In his view, "she will have ended up giving the 'counter-jihad' a very bad name, because she's given the institutional left, as Andrew Breitbart called it, a whole bunch of ammo with which to smear the entire 'movement.'"
The other was from Mohammed Al-Darsani, a Muslim U.S. army officer and veteran whom I first met several years ago while speaking at the law school where he was a student. Al-Darsani unequivocally condemned the attack on the Texas event and stressed that the rights of Geller and Spencer (and their supporters) "should be steadfastly protected." But he also added, "It would be nice to see them use their fifteen minutes of fame to issue a statement of unequivocal support for honest, hard-working Americans who happen to be Muslim [and] to thank Muslim United States Military Servicemembers for their service and sacrifices." Al-Darsani readily acknowledges that "there are significant problems concerning hatred and violence in many predominately Muslim communities and sects"; but he wishes Geller and Spencer would acknowledge that "that is not the whole story."
These messages go to the heart of why I wrote my article. I stand by every word.